Why Petco’s #stoptheshock Campaign Misses the Mark for Some Dogs
Like many dog owners, I used to believe that training tools like prong collars and e-collars were cruel inventions, used only with fear-based training methods with the sole intention of causing harm to a dog.
Recently, Petco launched their #stoptheshock campaign, putting a spotlight on e-collars, describing them as “painful” and linking them to “punishment-based” training. The store announced that they are pulling all human-operated “shock collars” from their shelves and focusing only on “positive training.”
The campaign anthropomorphizes dogs, putting human feeling and emotions to their behaviors, misleads pet owners about what the “positive” in Positive Reinforcement means, and describing shock collars to cause “anxiety,” “fear,” and “stress” in dogs.
I used to believe all of this to be true as well until a sweet, yet unmanageable puppy named Laila came into my life. Laila was a Spanish hunting breed mix with a high prey drive and fiercely independent personality. Off leash, she would tear into the woods, not to be seen again for 10 minutes. I thought I’d lost her the first time I offered her some freedom.
She’d chase after herds of goats, sheep, and deer and throw a tantrum any time a human would even glance in her direction.
I spent hours working with her using positive reinforcement training methods. We’d practiced recall on a long line in various locations. We’d walk up and down the same street over and over to mitigate her pulling. I’d drop treats down to her while she lay on her mat any time a person walked by while we were eating at a restaurant. I worked with different trainers to try and tame the beast.
Despite my best efforts, I was spent, frustrated, and just wanted to leave her at home. I hated walking her. I dreaded anytime a friend came over because it entailed a half hour of non-stop barking. I didn’t enjoy hiking and running with her. As someone who bases their living off of adventuring with their dog, this posed a problem.
After an exasperated Instagram post about my troubles, I was introduced to the thought of e-collars and prong collars, as recommended by trusted friends, whom I knew to love their dogs more than anything. So I began to research e-collars by talking to friends who use them under the guidance of a trainer and to trainers themselves. I started following trainers on Instagram to learn more and found YouTube videos from recommended trainers.
My research dispelled many of the assumptions I held about e-collars and I came to learn that when used correctly, the e-collar can be an incredibly effective communication tool.
Below, I explain five common assumptions about e-collars to help better understand how they work.
1. “E-COLLARS HURT DOGS”
They can, just like a flat collar hurt a dog. Just like a human hand can hurt a dog. Just like the chef’s knife you use on a daily basis can be a murder weapon, an e-collar can hurt a dog when used in the wrong hands. Proper use of the e-collar first teaches a dog the skill (i.e. “sit”), then layers on the e-collar once the dog understands what is being asked.
Going through the motions ensures that dogs are not punished, nor harmed when they reach the fence barrier. Rather, they are taught that the sound or stimulation means that they get to return to their human for a treat and praise. Conditioning a dog to an e-collar takes time and dedication. The goal is to create a positive association with the e-collar with treats and positive reinforcement on a low stimulation.
Many assume that e-collars are used only to correct a dog when they do something “bad.” By layering it over known commands, the dog learns that their decisions may result in a low level correction, much like a tap on the shoulder to get one’s attention. You want your dog to understand that the stimulation is coming from you, the handler.
Though not an e-collar, SpotOn Virtual Fence also includes an optional static correction that is the same sensation as an e-collar. It’s very important even with this product to train your dog and SpotOn provides several different training plans and detailed videos about how to properly introduce and use the collar on dogs.
2. “E-COLLARS ARE LAZY”
Because they require the additional step of layering the collar after first teaching obedience commands, this argument holds no weight. Yes, for those who slap an e-collar on a dog to correct misbehavior, this is a lazy approach to training.
E-collars are extremely effective communication tools and because of that are more efficient. More efficient doesn’t mean lazy. Think about the fact that you probably drive every day instead of walk or bike. It’s because it’s more efficient. Lazy is not training your dog at all. The SpotOn training plans suggest taking several weeks to condition your dog to the collar, encouraging owners to go at their dogs’ pace.
3. “AVERSION = ABUSE”
We humans experience aversive tools every single day. Fire alarms are aversive. The ding from your car when you wait too long to put your seatbelt on is aversive. Alarm clocks are aversive. In aversive therapy treatments, the idea is for the patient to associate something unpleasant with an unwanted behavior. As an example, someone trying to quit smoking may snap a rubber band worn around the wrist whenever they reach for their cigarettes.
High quality e-collars have a stimulation range that goes from 0-100. Once you find your dog’s working level, usually something under 10, a stimulation most humans cannot feel, it acts more like a pager. The correction comes when the handler needs the dog to take their focus off the distraction (squirrel, other dog, person, etc.) and bring their attention back to the handler or away from the thing they could harm or that could harm them.
4. “E-COLLARS ARE SHOCK COLLARS”
Modern, high quality e-collars use TENS technology to deliver stimulation to a dog. Physical therapists use TENS on patients to reduce pain and muscle spasms associated with various injuries and conditions, including arthritis, endometriosis, and sports injuries. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and alleviates pain through the delivery of a mild electrical current. Mind you, there are poor quality e-collars on the market today. They are generally sold in pet stores and are very inexpensive. These will cause pain.
5. “It Will Ruin My Relationship with My Dog”
I can tell you first hand this is not the case. Many dog owners turn to e-collars as a last resort, only after they have exhausted all other methods of training. The relationship between a frustrated dog and owner is already strained. When the training methods you’ve been trying aren’t working and you can’t stand your dog, or you can’t leave the house with them, and the quality of life for both you and your dog are suffering, then continuing to try the same thing won’t help.
Think of the e-collar as a translator. Remember, dogs don’t speak English and humans don’t speak dog. We learn some words and postures in the other’s language, but neither of us is fluent. The e-collar helps facilitate what the human is trying to say in a way the dog can understand.
The assumption is that e-collars are used only as negative reinforcement, but when used as part of a balanced training program, you’ll see that positive reinforcement is a huge component of the training.
I have been using the e-collar on my dog, Sitka for nearly a year, under the guidance of a trainer, and in that time I’ve learned that the myths I once believed about e-collars simply aren’t true. I’ve seen the freedom that comes with the tool and know that I can keep my dog and others safe thanks to proper training.
It troubles me to see influential stores like Petco contribute to the misinformation about the proper use and purpose of e-collars, while teaching owners that there is only one way to train a dog. Like humans, every dog is different and must be treated as an individual.
Article written by Jen Sotolongo
Jen is the author of the Essential Guide for Hiking with Dogs & blogs at Long Haul Trekkers, a leading resource for adventure dogs and their humans. She is also a freelance writer, photographer, and dog mom, of course. She loves trail running, hiking, and camping in the mountains. She is born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and lives in Bend, OR with her rescued cattle dog mix, Sitka.